Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Wales sure they'll be a handful

Wales head coach and returning New Zealander Warren Gatland. Photo / Getty Images.
Wales head coach and returning New Zealander Warren Gatland. Photo / Getty Images.

There is a quiet confidence within the Wales squad - personified by head coach and returning New Zealander Warren Gatland - that they can make a loud statement against
the world champions at Eden Park next Saturday.

For the moment, there isn't fighting talk exactly, more a comfort in the fact that they know they will be a handful if they get everything right against a team in rebuilding mode.

Their 27-13 defeat to England at Twickenham on Monday morning NZT before they travelled to their Takapuna base showed them how far they have to go but, as Gatland said, there was a pre-season feel to that match and the intensity from both teams at the All Blacks fortress will be at a vastly different level.

"The thing about facing the All Blacks is that you know there's a physicality, intensity and pace and level of the game that a lot of players haven't faced, so you have to get up to speed quickly," he said.

"We're not here just to make up the numbers and we're not here to start the rebuilding phase for New Zealand rugby either after a lot of experienced players have gone.

"What they achieved in winning their second World Cup in a row was pretty exceptional in terms of their play," he added.

"But what I admire about them as a team is they never panicked. They were behind a number of times at halftime or with 10 to 15 minutes to go and it was their belief in their structure and systems and getting across the line [which helped them].

"We felt the brunt of that a couple of years ago when we were leading with 69 minutes on the clock and they scored a couple of tries against us in the final 10 minutes."

In fact, the All Blacks scored three tries in the final 10 minutes at Millennium Stadium in 2014 to run away with the game, but Gatland's point about the All Blacks of recent years not panicking is valid. And, significantly, he made the distinction that Hansen's current squad is different to the one which went through the recent World Cup unbeaten.

"That often comes with a lot of players being together for a long time, [with] a lot of experience. It's an interesting new squad for them. I know they've been speaking about taking it to another level but potentially that takes a bit of time as well."

Reading between the lines, there is a feeling Wales believe they can pressure some inexperienced combinations.

Gatland, a former All Blacks hooker, believes Hansen's starting pack for the first test will be similar to the one which started the last match against the Wallabies in the World Cup final at Twickenham in early November, with the exception of the absent Richie McCaw.

It is the backline which will undergo the most change following the departure of Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

Gatland expects Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa to start in the midfield outside first-five Aaron Cruden but was reluctant to point to any areas of vulnerability despite the potential for upheaval.

In the meantime before the seriousness of test week begins, Gatland's players are enjoying being away from what can often be a suffocating atmosphere of expectation in rugby-mad Wales.

Here, the expectations are far, far lower - Wales last beat the All Blacks in 1953 - and as a result, the public appears keen to take the underdogs to heart.

"It's nice sometimes to get away from that to New Zealand where it's not quite the same fishbowl," Gatland said.

"People still think that rugby in the Northern Hemisphere is played in six inches of mud and every second ball is kicked away. From that point of view, it's nice to be down here.

"Players have already been speaking about how much they're enjoying being on the Shore; people coming up to them and saying 'welcome to New Zealand, enjoy your trip and good luck'."

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 06 Dec 2016 09:51:03 Processing Time: 469ms